What's Jazz?

What's Jazz?

Jessica Cassyle Carr
3 min read
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Bassist Zimbabwe Nkenya won't tell me what kind of jazz he plays. He says most jazz categories are superficial, and that only two really exist: good and bad. This invalidates my need to define what he does with genre placement, but oh well—with my petite knowledge of the original American music, perhaps I would have only been confused if he'd told me his style was a fusion of avant-garde and hard bop (it's not). Besides, he doesn't really like the word “fusion” and neither do I.

Why is jazz so inaccessible to some people while others love it so much?

A lot of people hear a song and they want to hear a singer tell a story in English. You know, something they can relate to. Jazz and instrumental music has no vocals, so for me the good thing about that is you can use your imagination. It takes you into places. If it had vocals you wouldn’t go there because the vocals are telling you, “no, it’s not there, it’s here.” But with instrumental music you can go anywhere, and that’s what I love about it and that’s what pulls people in.

Why is there so much jazz that seems just bad? How do you define good jazz?

Bad jazz to me is a boring type of music, like a rehash or people are trying to copy notes off a record or some sheet music. Really, true jazz to me is when a musician can take things and play it their own way or the way they hear it. That’s what makes it exciting. In the old days it’s true that a lot of jazz musicians would play music that was popular at that time or music that they felt would reach people. Like Dizzy Gillespie when he used Chano Pozzo the great Cuban percussionist. That added a whole big thing to jazz because people started using Cuban rhythms. Miles Davis used Cindy Lauper’s tune “Time After Time.” Jazz musicians have always used popular music to express jazz. It’s not like it's in a museum; the music is really alive. So you have to explore what’s happening out in the street. The most exciting thing happening now is turntables and hip-hop. So I’m using it in jazz.

Can you talk more about what you do and what your aim is with your music? What do you want people to feel?

Today people have that violent mentality. So in my music I always try to put love as opposed to hate. We’re really living in a negative time and jazz musicians, hip-hop musicians, African musicians, the really good ones, always try to put a positive spin on things. You should walk away from it feeling good about the world not “Kill Some More Arabs!”, you know? In my music I try to give an alternative, something positive. It’s in the rhythm.

Zimbabwe Nkenya's Black Jazz Culture will feature the African mbira, acoustic bass, turntable, drums and piano. At the Outpost Performance Space (210 Yale SE) this Thursday, June 30, at 7:30 p.m., with the Paul Gonzales Quartet. Tickets are $10. Call 268-0044 for more information.

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